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Letters to the Editor 4/23

April 21, 2000

A recent newspaper article stated that I had proposed a tax increase at the last County Commissioner's meeting. In reality, I had made a motion to go to public hearing with a budget that proposed a 20 cent increase to the County's $2.31 property tax rate.

I felt it was important to do this not because I have adopted a policy of tax and spend, but, rather, I felt it was necessary to quantify the $6 million "full funding" request being made by the Board of Education.

My philosophy continues to be one of living within one's budget, especially since county revenues are tied directly to growth in income and property valuations. These revenues have grown at approximately 6 percent annually over the past 10 years. This year, the growth is expected to level off at approximately 4 percent, or $3.5 million.

With $1 million being applied to "borrowing" from an expected FY '99 surplus and $1 million being applied toward increased debt service, there is actually about $1.5 million in "new money" available for fiscal year 2001.

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For months, I have been hearing that Washington County was funding its school system at the level of 23rd out of 24 jurisdictions in the State of Maryland.

This information being used for comparison was dated, and I felt it difficult to believe, given that the Board of Education funding has been increased $12 million at the local level since fiscal year 1997, while student populations have been relatively flat or declining.

In order to clarify the funding issue, I obtained FY 2000 information from the State Department of Education. I also obtained 1998 median household family income information from the Maryland Office of Planning. For fiscal year 2000, this information revealed that the county ranks 16th in the state in terms of per pupil funding of its school system.

It also ranks 16th in the state in terms of median household family income. This equal ranking would appear to indicate that residents of Washington County are adequately funding their school system.

The State Department of Education also provided information on administrative and teacher salary pay scales. This information revealed that in the area of administrative and supervisory pay scales, our county ranks in the top 10 of the 24 jurisdictions in the state for such positions as supervisor, pupil personnel worker, psychologist, vice principal, principal, and assistant superintendent.

The same information also lists Washington County as 13th in the state for teachers with a bachelor's degree in step 1, 18th for teachers with bachelor's degree in step 10, 20th for teachers with a master's degree in step 1, and 24th for teachers with master's degrees in step 10.

In order to be moved to 16th position in the state, bachelor-degreed teachers in step 10 would require a $600 increase, andmaster-degreed teachers in step 10 would require a $2,500 increase.

Given that the county apparently ranks 16th in the state in terms of per-pupil expenditures, my challenge to the School Board was to explain the factors that existed that apparently cause us to rank lower in terms of tenured teacher salaries.

For instance, is the School Board adequately utilizing its resources, both capital and human? Does Washington County operate more schools per the number of students? Do we maintain smaller class sizes, thus employing more faculty and requiring additional classrooms?

It has been asserted on many occasions that school funding can be increased without raising taxes. I have not yet been presented with the specifics of that proposal; however, the numbers might also suggest that teacher salary improvements could be made within the school system's own budget.

The household median family income information also reveals that our incomes are more closely aligned with our neighbor to the west, Allegany County, rather than our neighbor to the east, Frederick County. Frederick County's median family income is listed at 6th in the state at $56,700, which is approximately $18,000 higher than Washington and Allegany County's median family incomes of $38,600.

It might be further noted that Frederick County's per pupil funding is ranked at 14th in the state, while Allegany County's is ranked at 23rd.

Given that our median incomes are 10 positions below and our educational funding is only two positions below that of Frederick County, it would appear that Washington County does a pretty good job at funding its school system, given the limited resources available.

Additionally, Washington County's median income is equal to that of Allegany County, but we fund our school system seven positions above that County.

Finally, what conclusion might we draw from this information? First, I believe that it emphasizes the importance of benchmarking our systems against standards to determine where we excel and where we might improve.

This is a process which will take some time to develop and can not be accomplished in the current budget process.

Second, the Board of County Commissioners could make funding conditional upon accomplishment of certain objectives, such as increased grant funding or efficiency improvements.

Third, the numbers suggest that we must somehow do a better job at growing household median family income.

Fourth, school funding is a partnership between the state and local levels. I will address the adequacy of state funding at a later date. I do believe, however, that we, as elected officials, owe it to the taxpayers of this county to ensure that we develop a system which efficiently utilizes its available resources without sacrificing the quality of the product.




William Wivell is a Washington County Commissioner.

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